Trump's Paris Decision: Let's Make a Deal (or Not)
Most press coverage of President Trump’s announcement of U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate accord missed the real story. The issue is not whether the planet is warming, and, if it is, whether the cause is human emissions of carbon dioxide or a natural cycle of change. The latter is still a legitimate debate.
The real concern for Americans should be that we have become complacent about politicians violating of our founding principles as long as they give a good-sounding reason -- like saving the planet (the more bombastic, the better).
President Obama unilaterally committed our country to joining the Paris accord in 2015 and formalized it the following year. He ignored the Constitution’s instruction that the Senate must ratify all treaties. This important stipulation ensures that voters can weigh in on national decisions through their elected representatives.
Thus, until Trump acted, the United States was on the hook to give billions of dollars (from private and government sources) to the United Nations Green Climate Fund, the pot of money set aside to limit or reduce developing nations’ greenhouse gas emissions and impacts of climate change. Obama also volunteered us to reduce our emissions by 26-28 percent by 2025, compared to 2005 levels. Some of these reductions would have been achieved by shutting down coal-fueled power plants, further harming workers in that industry. Others would have come from fuel economy standards that would drive up the cost of transportation, a significant cost in rural areas.
American opinion is split roughly 50-50 on the question of man-made climate change, with a slight majority considering it something to be tackled. A much-vaunted poll was conducted by the New York Times and CBS News in November 2015, right before the Obama administration committed to the Paris accord. It found that two-thirds of the 1,030 respondents favored “joining an international treaty requiring America to reduce emissions in an effort to fight global warming.”
However, that same poll revealed the problem that policymakers always run into: Americans don’t personally want to suffer in pursuit of nebulous goals like reducing emissions. The majority of those surveyed favored carbon emission limits for U.S. power plants, and were narrowly in favor (49 percent-45 percent) of limiting oil and gas drilling, logging, and mining in U.S. public lands.
But when it came to personally paying the piper, they were opposed. Seventy-nine percent of that same group were against increasing electricity taxes to curb consumption. Sixty percent opposed raising gasoline taxes to encourage less driving or the purchase of cars that use less gas.
Cheap energy fuels the economy and Americans don’t want that to change. By withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, Trump sided with the majority of Americans, according to the very same polls his opponents use to condemn him.
Furthermore, he fulfilled a major campaign pledge while showing the blue-collar workers whose jobs are most threatened by government interventions in the energy space that he is committed to their well-being.
His way of withdrawing, however, could have accomplished even more.
“The opportunity Trump missed was to say that he was sending the Paris accord to the Senate for advice and consent,” Myron Ebell, a director at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and former Trump Environmental Protection Agency transition head, told me. “It would have been the chance to show future presidents that freelancing isn’t the way to do treaties.”
Exercising executive power to pull us out of the accord leaves the door open for future presidents to get us back in — which is simultaneously something Trump said he might want to do.
In the same breath that he announced the withdrawal, Trump added the U.S. would “begin negotiations to reenter the Paris accord or a really entirely new transaction.” His audience’s reaction reveals how his supporters would view such a move:
Therefore, in order to fulfill my solemn duty to protect America and its citizens, the United States will withdraw from the Paris climate accord – [applause] -- thank you, thank you -- but begin negotiations to reenter either the Paris accord or a really entirely new transaction on terms that are fair to the United States, its businesses, its workers, its people, its taxpayers. So we’re getting out. But we will start to negotiate, and we will see if we can make a deal that’s fair. And if we can, that’s great. And if we can’t, that’s fine. [Applause.]
Applause began the moment he said “withdraw” and swelled until he said “but begin negotiations,” at which point it cut out entirely. The Rose Garden was completely silent as the president continued to speak, until he said of renegotiating a deal, “If we can, that’s great” — one or two people began to clap a little — and then it picked up again in earnest when he added: “and if we can’t, that’s fine.”
One source close to the Trump administration told me he thought talking about renegotiating the deal was Trump’s way of assuaging hurt feelings of advisers who had wanted him to stay in the accord, such as his daughter Ivanka and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Another possibility is Trump is trying to have it both ways. While the deal was clearly a bad one, the president doesn’t like to eliminate options. He doesn’t want to fully commit to one side at the cost of losing the other. He wants them both roped in, trying to sway him, giving him more leverage and elevating him over both positions.
From a policy standpoint for conservatives and libertarians, Trump nailed it, saying, “This is less about the climate than [about] other countries gaining a financial advantage over the United States.”
As Ebell further explained, “Getting out of Paris is a crucial part of his deregulatory energy agenda. The Paris accord is the key to the energy agenda, which is key to getting economic growth back up to 3 percent a year. If he gets us back to 3 percent, he’ll be re-elected.”
Correction: Due to incorrect information provided to RealClearPolitics, the amount of funding the United States was obligated to provide the United Nations Green Climate Fund was overstated in an earlier version of this column.